War Memoir Bares Harrowing Life of a Russian Grunt

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 21, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 20 -- Twice Russia went to war in its breakaway southern republic of Chechnya, unleashing a conflict rank with the blood of civilians and hobbled by ineptitude and corruption. And twice Arkady Babchenko heeded the call. The first time, in 1995, he was an 18-year-old, second-year law student who could have easily avoided the draft but instead felt the romantic call of his motherland. The second time, in 1999, there was no such illusion; for reasons he says he can't quite explain, he volunteered to return to a place where he had been brutalized, as much by his own superiors as by the war itself.

After Babchenko finally left the army, he started to write. His recollections began as scribbles. He didn't know whether he was writing a short story or a poem or a song. "You feel this pain physically as the war comes out of you and onto paper, shaking you so that you can't see the letters," he wrote.

What emerged, in the end, was "One Soldier's War," a harrowing, angry memoir of the two tours in Chechnya. The book, to be published in the United States in February by Grove Press, is a rare firsthand account of the singularly wretched existence of the Russian grunt in that conflict.

As a memoirist, Babchenko provides no corroboration of specific events he describes in often graphic terms. But his general account matches in tone others that have slowly emerged from the front lines of the long conflict.

Some European critics have grumbled that the book's narrative line is disjointed and the text lacks any political or historical analysis of what happened in Chechnya and why. But Babchenko said his only goal was to capture the confused, fear-ridden, despairing world of a young private and his buddies where the only goal is survival.

Other readers, including a reviewer for the British newspaper the Guardian, have compared the book to the finest writing on war, including "Dispatches," Michael Herr's memoir of the Vietnam conflict.

While Western critics have argued over its merits, the book has been largely ignored in Russia. It has had a tiny, mostly unsold print run and received few notices in the press.

"Chechnya was a crime," said Babchenko, now 30 and a reporter at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "That's why our country does not want to face it. The country has been shaken for 15 years and people want to forget."

In one chapter, he recalls the mothers of soldiers missing and presumed dead coming in droves to a base just outside Chechnya to try to find their boys. Many bodies were hard to identify, Babchenko said, because Russian dog tags are so poorly made that they are easily destroyed.

"They have to look through a mountain of corpses in the refrigerators at the station and in the tents," he wrote. "Constant shrieks and moans can be heard from there and the women have aged ten years when they are led out."

Some of them continued into Chechnya on foot, carrying photos of their sons.

Basic training was almost nonexistent, Babchenko says; he first went to war having fired his weapon twice. Fresh recruits marched barefoot or in slippers, their feet ripped to shreds. Rations were scarce. Babchenko recalls eating a dog that he and his colleagues shot and skinned. They stewed it in ketchup. He drank fetid water from a river blighted by human corpses.

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